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Image: Detail from Colchicum Autumnale in Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz (Otto Wilhelm Thomé), 1885.

Public Domain (Wikipedia Commons).

Slavery and Pharmacology: Theophrastus on the poisonous root ephemeron

by Svetlana Hautala

October 4, 2022

A brief discussion of poisons and their antidotes in Theophrastus' History of Plants touches upon the use of ephemeron (meadow saffron) by "angry slaves." Hautala explores how this passing reference suggests that botanical and pharmacological knowledge circulated within communities of enslaved people.

Dr Svetlana Hautala is a researcher of the anthropology of the ancient world with affiliation at the University of Oulu.

Society of Classical Studies 154th Annual Meeting

JANUARY 5-8, 2023


Call for Papers for Panel Sponsored by the Society for Ancient Medicine

“Addiction, Dependency, and Habit”

Organized by Colin Webster (UC Davis) and Aileen Das (Michigan)

The opioid crisis has been devastating American families for almost two decades now, but despite its incredible human toll, it has barely made a ripple in academic debates, even as we enter another revolution in the use of psychotropic drugs to treat issues of mental health. We live in the conceptual shadow of moralizing prohibitions, the war on drugs, the medicalization of substance abuse, and the consequences of all these approaches. This panel seeks to explore the discourses around addictions, habits, and dependencies in antiquity, attempting to analyze these issues without the familiar frames of modern psychology and modern biomedicine. How were such issues conceptualized in antiquity? Without the categories of “psychoactive” or “psychotropic” substances, what counts as a problematic substance dependency? The Lotus-eaters of the Odyssey (Od. 9.82–104) stand as an early warning against pharmacologically induced bliss. Yet, ancient physicians frequently prescribed drugs that are high-risk for habit-formation, most notably opium and alcohol. Marcus Aurelius reportedly consumed the opium-containing drug theriac every day, and this “habit” [ethos] both created a potential addiction and allowed him to endure the hardships of military campaign (Gal. De antidotis 14.4K; cf. Diod. Sic. 71.6.3–4). Mithridates, in order to keep himself immune to poison, consumed toxic substances every day so that, as Pliny says, “he might render them harmless through habit itself [consuetudine ipse]” (Pl. NH 24.3.6; cf. Gal. De antidotis 14.4K). What does it mean when medical treatments produce dependencies or create harms? What are the dangers presented by long-term therapeutic interventions? How can we think about these issues using disability and chronic illness as frames, where the boundary between addictions and life-improving treatments is even less clear? Moreover, regimen-based medical approaches enforce near-constant attention to health in a way that itself flirts with the pathological. Eating-for-health can easily slide into a compulsive eating disorder. How do philosophical and medical notions of habit, dependency and immoderation interact? Is “moderation” the only morally-tinged principle guiding medical consumption patterns? Beyond philosophy, are there literary or mythic reflections on the dangers or benefits of pharmacological or medical dependencies? How do intraregional and intracultural drug trades shape attitudes toward particular substances? How do religious rituals involving pharmacological and therapeutic substances structure their use more broadly, either mitigating or promoting dependency? How did the prevalence of wine in Greek medicine affect its reception within Islamic tradition? Proposed papers are welcome to address these issues or any other related topics, including, but not limited to questions of chronic illness, pain, mortality, harm-reduction, risk-assessment, mental illness, gender, economics, and trade, whether in Greek, Roman, or other pre-modern contexts. Please send abstracts that follow the guidelines for individual abstracts (see the SCS Guidelines for Authors of Abstracts) by email to Colin Webster (UC Davis) at by March, 25, 2022. Ensure that the abstracts are anonymous. The organizers will review all submissions anonymously, and their decision will be communicated to the authors of abstracts by March 31, 2022.

The Rootcutter is coming!

THE ROOTCUTTER, the blog for the Society for Ancient Medicine and Pharmacology, invites pitches for paid essays for an inaugural series that addresses connections between ancient and modern medicines. Essays should explore any aspect of ancient medicine broadly construed (e.g., including, but not limited to healing in the Mediterranean, Middle East, pre-modern China, India, and pre-Colombian South America), ideally through engagement with a clear and accessible primary source (e.g., image, object, short excerpt). Our intended audience includes historians and scientists, healthcare professionals and consumers, researchers and students. We hope that these essays will create a robust framework for applying key insights from classical reception studies to the history of medicine in antiquity and its relationship to modern medical theories and practices. Details can be found here.

The Rootcutter on the SCS Blog!

The Rootcutter has been featured on the SCS Blog, which outlines some of the rationale behind its inaugural series "The Best Doctor is also a Historian." Details about the blog and how to submit pitches can be found here.

Routledge Studies in Ancient Disabilities is a series dedicated to the investigation of new perspectives, the application of new approaches, and the promotion of period-based and cross-cultural investigations of disability throughout antiquity. Extending beyond the core disciplines of ancient history, archaeology and classical studies, the series aims to provide a forum for scholars with diverse backgrounds, including bioarchaeology, biblical studies and contemporary disability studies, to explore the evidence for disabilities within communities extending from the Bronze Age to late Antiquity. Encouraging cross-disciplinary studies, the series aims to bring questions of disability and impairment into dialogue with those concerning status, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and other lived experiences, as well as to consider how successive generations have received, appropriated, or reworked these forms of identity. Ultimately, the series seeks to expand the geographical, cultural, and chronological scope of work on ancient disabilities and broaden our understandings of physical impairment and mental and intellectual disabilities (and related conditions).

For further information about contributing to the series, please contact Dr Emma-Jayne Graham at

Current Issues in Ancient Medicine (CIAM) makes available to a wide readership, both in print and digitally on Open Access, the results of current research on ancient medicine from antiquity to the Renaissance. The series publishes, in the major languages of global scholarly communication, not only monographs and collective volumes, but also critical editions, translations, and commentaries, all peer-reviewed by an international committee of readers. In the variety of its approaches, ranging from philology to the history of science and the history of ideas, this series reflects and speaks to the varied interests of the contemporary reader in ancient medicine.

Editors | Éditrices | Herausgeberinnen Brigitte Maire & Nathalie Rousseau Editorial Board | Comité scientifique | Wissenschaftlicher Beirat Arsenio Ferraces Rodríguez, Klaus-Dietrich Fischer, Valérie Gitton-Ripoll, Alessia Guardasole, David R. Langslow, Marie-Hélène Marganne, Matteo Martelli, Anna Maria Urso Contacts | Kontakte | |